Arthur J. Altmeyer
Interview with Arthur Altmeyer
Q: I wonder if we could start off today by talking about the question of what basic influences were at work in the shaping of the Social Security Act. In particular, there has been an attempt to try to define specific categories of influence and relate it to specific provisions--for example, the influence of social workers and their point of view and labor union officials and their point of view. I wonder how valid you feel this basic cause and effect relationship is or was in the shaping of the Social Security Act.
Altmeyer: Well, I think the predominant influence on the development of the Social Security Act came from the institutional economists, particularly the labor economists. I think that they were familiar with what was called workers' insurance in Europe and with the development of that form of workers' insurance which we call workmen's compensation in this country. They carried their ideas, you might say extrapolated them, in the development of the Social Security Act. I'm speaking now primarily of the unemployment insurance and the old age insurance provisions.
When you turn to the public assistance aspects, the social workers were of course very much interested and expressed themselves. But interestingly enough, the social workers were not as a body the ones who developed the concept of cash assistance instead of relief in kind. It came from Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams, who had become disgusted with the demeaning aspects of relief in kind and the opportunities for corruption and connivance on the part of providers of the groceries and rent and so on and the administrative complications that were involved. So they are the ones--Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams--that really were responsible for promulgating and enforcing the concept of cash assistance, which was carried over into the Social Security Act
As a matter of fact, the people interested in aid to dependent children, or mothers' pensions, as it was called, were very much (I mean by "people," social workers) concerned whether the cash payment principle might not interfere with constructive social service, and that expressed itself in various parts of the country. I recall the Chicago group and the Cincinnati group expressed their concern. Even after the Social Security Act was passed, they wanted the Social Security Board to develop administrative methods that would somehow relate the cash payments to serve the needs of the constructive social service approach. And we leaned backwards--we of the Social Security Board--in insisting that there could not be any strings attached to the payment of cash benefits.
I might add this: that so far as the influence of organized labor is concerned, their interest and drive concluded, fitted in, with the ideas of the institutional economists and the labor economists. Labor as a group did not, as a matter of fact, exercise any influence. There were several individuals that were interested and sympathetic and helpful, but there was no power drive on the part of organized labor.
Q: No specific concept or set of ideas or mechanisms which were pressed by the group?
Altmeyer: This wasn't in the focus or interest of organized labor. The Gompers influence of keeping away from government and direct action was in the picture, the notion of concentrating on traditional bread and butter issues, was still predominant in the labor movement.
Q: How about businessmen?
Altmeyer: Businessmen? The large businessmen recognized the need for social action. They saw the wreckage that had been caused by the Depression, and so leaders in industry, the heads of large corporations, were very sympathetic toward the adoption of governmental measures, particularly contributory social insurance. That included Folsom and Swope and Teagle of Standard Oil of New Jersey. I remember those three men particularly, but there were others like Litchfield of Goodyear Rubber and a number of others.
Q: Is it possible to identify any particular provisions in the Social Security Act or any specific shaping influence which can be attributed to them rather than any other influence or group of people?
Altmeyer: I would say that they had some influence insofar as the incorporation of experience rating in unemployment insurance, for example. But that was a generally accepted idea all around--that unemployment insurance could be an instrument to promote stabilization of employment. That's the only specific item I can think of. They were also interested (by "they" I mean the employer members of the advisory council to the Department of Commerce) in making it easy for employers who did business interstate to report and operate under contributory social insurance.
Q: Now, this was subsequent to the passage of the law?
Altmeyer: No, that was prior to the passage. There's a report of the advisory council in the case of unemployment insurance indicating that the employers favored a subsidy plan rather than a tax offset plan because they felt that it would be easier to convert that into a straight federal system and they leaned towards a straight federal system--these large employers--because they operated in many states and didn't want to be caught in the variations and the requirements of the separate states.
Q: How about the insurance concepts that were incorporated into this Social Security Act? To what extent can those be attributed to insurance men or businessmen?
Altmeyer: I don't think they can be attributed to insurance men. I don't think private insurance was interested to any great extent. We borrowed some actuaries to help us, but they didn't think unemployment insurance feasible from a private insurance standpoint, that unemployment was not an insurable risk. I think by that they meant that no private insurance company could afford to write the business because of the unpredictability of the impact of unemployment.
So far as employers were concerned, the same advisory council to the Department of Commerce favored employee contributions as well as employer. So they were very strongly committed to the contributory principle and felt it ought to apply to employees as well as employers. I think they were right. I think it was a mistake that we didn't include employee contributions. But there some good reasons for not doing so at that time that I won't go into now.
Q: Are these good reasons enumerated elsewhere in your book?
Altmeyer: I think I just touch on the fact that I think if we'd had employee contributions in unemployment insurance for example, the adversary character of the proceedings and the resultant limitations on benefits, the inadequacy of benefits generally, would not have occurred.
I have here a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune dated June 16th, 1967, headed: "War risk insurance." It deals with the influence of the persons in and around Hull House in Chicago on the development of the War Risk Insurance Act applied to veterans of World War I. That was a group that included representatives of labor and social workers, lawyers and other socially-minded persons. It provided insurance for service men and women, allotments and allowances for their dependents, compensation for the sick and disabled, widows and orphans and dependent parents and vocational training for the handicapped veteran as well as systematized hospitals and out-patient treatment for those veterans in need of it.
That was a tremendous advance over the old-fashioned way of sending war veterans to veterans' homes and paying them a bonus on their mustering out and forgetting about them thereafter.
There was a man right here in town, Herman L. Ekern--he had been insurance commissioner. He was a very close friend and associate of the senior Robert M. LaFollette. He participated in the development of the War Risk Insurance Act, although he's not mentioned in this article. He came to me when we were working on Social Security and after that in suggesting improvements in the Social Security Act, relating his ideas or pointing out what had been done after World War I and how that should be extended to the entire population, and he felt that if that were done it would eliminate the need for special consideration of veterans of the next war if we ever had one. That was before 1939 came along.
So I think it's very interesting to relate the thinking that went into this War Risk Insurance Act to what happened in the development of Social Security. The same kind of people were involved in this forerunner of the Social Security Act. I don't know of anybody who has dug into that. It's always been very interesting to me. I remember that Mr. Ekern called it to my attention.
Well, I have some notes here on some people who are still alive whom you ought to interview in connection with various influences that were brought to bear on the Social Security Act, 1935. One is Mary Van Kleeck, who used to be with the Russell Sage Foundation in charge of what I think was called the industrial division. In the latter 1920s she because interested in unemployment and how to measure it and called together a number of labor statisticians, including me and one from New York one from Massachusetts. All three of us had developed an index of unemployment in our respective States. She continued to have an interest in the unemployment field, but her interest was not confined simply to unemployment. She identified herself with the whole range of social insecurity, including the old age pension movement, and I think she testified in connection with the 1935 act. I know she testified later. She was not impressed with the scope of the Social Security Act, thought it was illiberal, not comprehensive enough, it wouldn't do the job. So I think she'd be someone who would give you an insight into what you might call the left-wing influences--a very intelligent woman and very knowledgeable and a fine mind.
Then there was Helen Hall, who just retired from the Henry Street Settlement. She later married the editor of the Survey, Paul Kellogg. Both of them served on the advisory council to the cabinet Committee on Economic Security. She was interested in unemployment during the late '20s and early '30s, wrote a book on it. She investigated what was called "the dole," the British dole in those days, which had a very bad reputation in this country and everybody swore by all that was holy that we would not import the British dole. I think by that they were talking about the so-called uncovenanted benefits that required a means test. Everybody thought that demoralized the workers, the recipients. It was just one of these hysterical movements against social reform that you get.
Then at the University of Chicago and Hull House there were the Abbott sisters. I know they're not alive now, so you can't see them. But there was Joel D. Hunter. He's still living. He's in Florida. He headed the Chicago Welfare Federation, or whatever it was called. He was part of that Hull House group, or had close relations with it and with the University of Chicago group. They were almost identical. He could give you some light on the attitudes and influence of social workers.
Raymond Rubinow, the son of Isaac Rubinow, who wrote The Quest for Security, could perhaps give you considerable information about his father and his associates and what activity they engaged in which had an impact on the development of Social Security thinking.
These are the persons who are still alive. There are some who have died whose papers may be extant some place. There's Harry Millis, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. I have a vague recollection that people have not been able to discover where his papers are, if they're still extant. They've talked with his daughter, Savilla Simon, who was the director of Travelers Aid at one time. I think she's with the YWCA now, but I'm not sure.
Josephine Roche is still alive, and she was active in social reform movements and, as you know, was a member of the Advisory Council. However, she does not want to be interviewed as I understand it.
Those are the only names I have jotted down here.
Q: These will be very helpful. I wonder if we could turn to a few questions that I would very much like to discuss with you today. First of all, the Townsend movement: we've touched on this before and of course it's been written about in many places. However, in recent days I've had occasion to go back through the whole history of the Townsend movement and there have been several things that havepuzzled me about it. You perhaps may not be able to shed say further light on it, but I'd appreciate your help if possible.
First of all, Townsend later in 1934, in December, when he was still growing very rapidly out in California and the Far West, wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt requesting an interview with the President, and his letter was handled by one of the President's assistants and an immediate refusal sent back the very next day. I was wondering: do you happen to recall whether this came within your ambit or whether this was handled within the White House? Was this something that would have been referred to the Committee on Economic Security?
Altmeyer: What period?
Q: December 17, 1934.
Altmeyer: I'm sure that would have been referred to us.
Q: You don't specifically recall any discussion about how to handle the Townsend people?
Altmeyer: Yes, we discussed the problem, and this man Harry Millis that I mentioned wrote a small book, a pamphlet, financed by the Twentieth Century Fund on the economics of Townsendism. We thought that might be helpful.
Q: Particularly regarding the strategy toward the Townsend movement in dealings with it, a decision was made to let Townsend appear before the Ways and Means Committee when the Social Security bill was before the Committee. This was a reversal of an original decision by Chairman Doughton not to have to have Townsend appear. Concurrent with his appearance was a repeated questioning of Administration witnesses on the Townsend movement. Henry Hopkins and Frances Perkins and so on all spoke on this issue and of course were quite vehemently opposed. Do you recall being involved in any discussions with the Chairman about how to handle this and was this something that was done in consultation with the Roosevelt Administration?
Altmeyer: I think it was in consultation with some people that we had working directly with the Ways and Means Committee. There was Tom Eliot, who drafted the bill, and Ed Witte and Ed McGrady, who was Assistant Secretary of Labor. I'm sure that this sequence of witnesses was worked out in consultation with the members of the committee by the individuals that I've mentioned.
Q: Also, when the Social Security bill was sent to the floor, it was sent with an open rule from the Rules Committee, which seemed a very unusual procedure. Was it related to this Townsend pressure in anyway?
Altmeyer: Was it a completely open rule?
Q: It was an open rule and this permitted--
Altmeyer: You mean any amendments?
Q: No an open rule, and it permitted the Townsend bill to be brought up and voted on.
Altmeyer: As a substitute.
Q: As a substitute.
Altmeyer: That's what I mean. It wasn't an open rule in the sense that various amendments to parts of the Social Security Act could be made. You might check that.
Q: I'd better. My impression was it was an open rule. That was the term I saw in the text.
Altmeyer: It might be, but I would be surprised if it was a completely open rule, because that would lead to chaos--everybody with his own ideas of this that and the other provision being improved upon. I'd be surprised if it went further than to allow a substitute measure to be presented which would have to be voted up or down.
Q: In any case, that's the thing I'm most interested in. They did obviously allow that at least, which seems an unusual procedure.
Altmeyer: I think that probably the Townsend movement played a part in that decision.
Q: Is this the kind of thing where sometimes it's better to let a substitute come up for a vote and be decisively defeated as a way to take the heat off?
Altmeyer: Yes. We did the same thing in 1939. As I recall, we allowed a vote. By "we" I mean the Ways and Means Committee allowed the Towsendites, who were still active, to have an opportunity to present their measure for debate and I think for a vote--at least in the sense of recommitting the committee bill so that there would be an opportunity to consider the rival proposal. That's my recollection. And you find that the procedure adopted for taking testimony in 1939--I appeared very briefly and made a set statement, read a statement, and then allowed all the critics, including the Townsendites, to come in and then I came in afterwards with my very extensive oral testimony. That was the strategy then, too.
Q: I see, to give you the final word. Another strategy aspect of it that interested me was that in 1935 when the Townsend bill was brought up for the vote it was a division vote rather than a roll call, which struck me as probablya way of permitting people to vote anonymously against it when there was a lot of pressure to vote for.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: Which I think is another illustration of how you have some weapons that you can use to fight against these things.
There were some suggestions and come correspondence and background material that I read that during the Spring of 1935, when the bill was still before the committee, before any votes took place, that there were further attempts by some Democrats, unnamed, to try to get Townsend to the WhiteHouse, to get an invitation from the White House. The implication was that there was an attempt to get Townsend to back Social Security and support the Administration. Can you recall any such effort being made?
Altmeyer: I haven't any doubt that some Democrats who felt the heat tried to get the President to listen to Townsend. The Republicans, though, felt the heat as much if not more than the Democrats. Of, course they wouldn't have any influence with the President. They continued to play along with Townsend up through 1939.
Q: Do you recall any discussion or attempting to get Townsend to come around to supporting the President?
Q: You felt it would have been hopeless. There was no point in your even trying.
Altmeyer: That's right. We knew that the old gentleman was sincere but nevertheless totally committed.
Q: I think that's very interesting. I was puzzled by the fact that apparently Townsend actually abandoned the Townsend plan at one point--I guess in the spring of 1935. The bill that was voted on in the floor, the so-called McGroaty bill, turned out to be not a $200 pension but $200 would be a maximum, and presumably any amount down to 25 cents or something would be the amount of the pension depending upon the income from this tax.
Altmeyer: Yes. Well, I wouldn't call that abandonment of the fundamental principle. I think it was a matter of strategy. McGroarty and Townsend worked very closely together, as I recall it.
Q: I think that just about covers the questions I have on that. I wonder if we could go to some other questions. These, if you don't mind, will be kind of scatter-shot because they're sort of odds and ends of things which have come up since we talked last.
For example, I wonder if we could talk a little about the Chamber of Commerce and its relationship to Social Security over the years and particularly Earl Schlotterbeck over there, what you know of him and his role in this history.
Altmeyer: Well, I think to a considerable extent the United States Chamber of Commerce is the captive of the bureaucracy in Washington, and there is not only Schlotterbeck but the Campbells and several other people, as I recall, employed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that became very much interested and evangelical as regards social insurance, particularly old age insurance and survivors' insurance. But perhaps more fundamental, the Committee on Socia1 Security, which consisted originally of very open-minded, I think liberal-minded employers, like Marion Folsom--I think he was chairman, as a matter of fact, at one time--changed its personnel to include more private insurance representatives, so they became more and more obsessed with the fact, as they saw it, that it wasn't genuine insurance and it wasn't doing the job and then they saw the possibility of using it as a vehicle to wipe out federal grants to the States for old age assistance. So one thing led to another, both a change in the complexion of the Social Security Committee and the zeal of the employees in the Washington office. I think they sort of interacted.
Q: Did you have any dealings with Karl Schlotterbek?
Altmeyer: No, after my testimony of 1953, he wrote me a note or called me up and said he wanted to sit down with me and he was sure it would be a fruitful discussion that would reach constructive results. I never paid any attention. I don't think I answered it. It probably was a letter and I never answered it. I knew there was no point to it. In fact, there would be danger from the standpoint of confusing people as to where I stood or what I had said and that sort of thing.
Q: In such a situation you have to have some reasonable hope that something constructive will come out of it.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: I wonder if we could talk about a few other personalities that I don't think we've discussed before. One of them is Senator Murray. He played a role particularly in the Wagner-Murray-Dingell episode. I wonder if you couldn't discuss him a little bit and his relationship to Social Security
Altmeyer: Well, I think he was like Senator Wagner. Neither of them were technicians. Neither of them were interested in the fine points, technical points, and neither of them took much interest in philosophical discussions. They were pragmatists and liberals that felt there were certain evils that needed to be resolved by government action. They depended, both of them, upon technicians and advisers in government and outside of government in whom they had confidence, and they would accept a proposal without going into the technicalities of it or even discussing much of the philosophy. If their advisors said, "This is good, Senator. We think it will accomplish its purposes, and briefly this it what it provides for," they were prepared to introduce the bill and stake their reputation on it and put their muscle into it. They were that kind of men.
Q: One of the people who was on Senator Murray's staff and then later played a role in the Special Committee on Aging was Bill Reidy. Is he somebody that you had dealings with during those years?
Altmeyer: Oh, very closely--Bill Reidy was the son of Murray.
Then there was MacMurray, who later became head of the Federal Housing Administration. He's now president of one of the colleges up there in New York when he resigned his government job a year or two ago. And, then there was Phil Levy on Senator Wagner's staff, with whom we worked very closely.
Q: Leon Keyserling had left then?
Altmeyer: Oh, yes. Leon was just in it in 1935, and he and Tom Eliot didn't get along well at all.
Q: Why was that?
Altmeyer: Well, Keyserling was an assertive, affirmative person, and he probably wanted this, that or the other thing that Eliot and people around Witte might have felt wasn't practical or wasn't sound, and so they just didn't get along. I think both of them were young lawyers and with their professional reputations in mind wanted to have the glory of being the top beagle.
Q: A very human thing.
Q: Howbout Senator Douglas?
Altmeyer: He didn't have the influence that's ascribed to him now. He was very well-informed and very well-intentioned, sympathetic, and we probably should have used him much more. But he was out in Chicago--away. If you read his testimony of 1935, you'll find that he changed his mind several times, and so he didn't stay put, and of course that was a cardinal sin insofar as we were concerned who were trying to get something through Congress:--that a man who had supported our approach in the Wagner-Lewis bill on unemployment insurance would reverse his stand and come out for the subsidy plan, joining the enemy so to speak, didn't endear him to us. But we had him on the 1938 advisory council, and I remember very well that he was very cooperative. He'd come around to me to find out just what the various considerations were and what stand I thought he ought to take on what was before the advisory council.
So we were always friendly, but I think he felt on the whole that we were a pretty stuffy, conservative-minded people.
Q: You kind of got it from both ends, didn't you? There were those who thought you were wild-eyed radicals.
Altmeyer: Yes, those without responsibility, you know. They have a different psychology completely.
Q: If we could go back to Senator Douglas for a moment, I wonder what role you would ascribe to him in later years after he was elected to the Senate.
Altmeyer: I don't think he put his back into Social Security until medicare came along. Then he did take more of an interest. But I think he let Wagner and Murray carry the ball. He had other interests, so I wouldn't say that he played a leadership role.
Q: But he did in the medicare debate?
Altmeyer: That's my recollection. He did, yes. By that time, you see, Senator Wagner and Murray were dead--when it really become a hot issue. So he and the Senator from New Mexico, Anderson, and people like that had to carry the ball. Incidentally, Senator Kennedy never took much interest in Social Security. He took some interest in unemployment insurance in the last year or two when his state was in financial difficulties. Then I think he joined in with some other Senators supporting medicare, but I'm not quite sure of that even.
Q: Yes, he did put a bill of his own in.
Altmeyer: On medicare or he just joined in?
Q: Well, both. First he put a bill in or his own, which was written by some of Reuther's people--this was about in January of 1960--and then after the nomination, he joined with Senator Anderson in a bill called the Kennedy-Anderson bill. That was the one that was defeated on the Senate floor.
Altmeyer: I didn't recall that he'd put one in of his own.
Q: It didn't get much publicity.
How about some of the labor people? I don't think we've really talked about the contributions and attitudesof some of the key people over there--George Meany, Walter Reuther and of course Nelson Cruikshank.
Altmeyer: I think that labor became more and more affirmative in its support of Social Security, but they evidenced it usually when there was an attack that they had to repel, like that of Curtis. And then I think Nelson Cruikshank was largely responsible for focusing their interests and their activity. They had too many other things on their mind. And they knew that the Administration was friendly and would try to get as much as it could, and so they got interested in unemployment insurance and dips in the business cycle. But Reuther I would say probably gave more attention and push to it than Meany, by far. But on the whole it was the bureaucrats--Nelson Cruikshank, Leonard Lesser, Kitty Ellickson--that had to carry the ball and were always moaning and groaning that they couldn't get their principals really steamed up.
Q: I gather though, that they were able to get their principals steamed up for the medicare debate, because I have the impression that labor really put its shoulder to that.
Altmeyer: That's right. That's right. And of course when you get their attention--I should mention that Andy Biemiller was in the picture, too, and telling them about who was voting which way and what the vote was likely to be. Well, I think they then got interested as a sort of demonstration of their power to influence legislation. It became a matter of prestige with their members. That would be my guess--I don't know.
Q: I wonder, too, whether or not there might have been a certain amount of sentiment involved, too; that the people who had risen to leadership in the labor movement were watching their comrades in arms retiring in the '50s and '60s moved on, and there was a strong sense of identification with these colleagues who had marched on the picket line with them in the '30s and a real feeling that they wanted to do something more for them to insure their retirement.
Altmeyer: You're not speaking of the leaders entirely. You're speaking of the membership generally?
Q: Yes, I'm speaking of the membership generally.
Altmeyer: I think so. Of course there's always a sort of dual psychology. They were sympathetic to the plight of the older union members, but they also felt that enabling them to retire opened up more jobs for the younger members. So there were two reasons why they became interested in the old age insurance aspect. But I think that that's a remarkable thing. I think it manifested itself more in the CIO and the automobile workers at first, at any rate, than elsewhere. The younger workers were willing in their collective bargaining to accept as a part of the package a large portion devoted to pensions. They went on that famous strike, you know, back in the early '50s that established it as a proper subject for collective bargaining. I think that was the United Steel strike, as I recall, and a very bitter strike--the main issue being whether pensions was a proper subject for collective bargaining and whether the National Labor Relations Act covered it. They won that fight. They won the strike and they won the veto decision, too. I think that was really to the credit of the social-minded leaders in the labor movement. They did feel so strongly and fought so strongly.
Now the trend, as you know, is moving away, as I read the signs, with the younger workers demanding more and more immediate benefits and less of this far-away security. It's evidenced itself in a number of the unions. I know, because I've had some contact with the United Mine Workers, that there's a very strong split with the younger members quite dissatisfied. They want early vesting, you see. They want immediate benefits of one kind and another--wage increases, of course--and there isn't so much concern about these pensions payable after a long period of employment.
Q: That's very interesting. How about Nelson Cruikshank and his role in Social Security: I wonder if you have anyimpressions and recollections of him?
Altmeyer: Oh, I think he was the indispensable man. He worked indefatigably to keep his principals interested and to inform and persuade members of Congress. I think he was tops.
Q: How do you explain his apparently great influence both in the labor movement and on the Hill? He seems to have had really high regard or there seems to have been a very high regard for him everywhere.
Altmeyer: Well, he's innately both an intelligent man and a man of fine character and an indefatigable worker. So you have those three qualities together, you're bound to have impact. And, as I've said, his principals were not too strongly motivated, and they were only too glad to have a man they thought was good to carry the ball for them.
Q: Do you recall any specifics about the personal relationship that developed between Nelson Cruikshank and the Social Security people, I presume in the early days when he first went to work in Washington?
Altmeyer: Well, he and Wilbur Cohen were the two that worked most closely together. I was glad to have Wilbur Cohen do the footwork. He did it well--much better than I could. And Cruikshank's principals were glad to have him do the footwork. So it made a very convenient and influential combination.
Q: I see. So for the most part he worked with Wilbur Cohen.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: You don't happen to recall, do you, the first meeting which you had with him or when he came to introduce himself?
Altmeyer: I haven't the foggiest idea. When did he come in?
Q: It was in the '40s--l945 or '46 just after the war. He recalls going over to meet you. He had been told to look you up. Thatwas one of the first things he did.
Altmeyer: Was he made the head of the Social Security department then immediately?
Q: Yes, I think so. And then he went away for a while and came back. He went to Europe.
Altmeyer: Oh, yes.
Q: Got a couple of years, and then he brought right back into the job just before the merger.
Altmeyer: Did Kitty Ellickson precede him? I'm inclined to think so. She was then CIO, and he and she didn't get along too well. She was very determined, and I think Nelson found it difficult to get her to play ball as a team. But he gave her a wide scope.
Q: It must have been very difficult for her to accept being made his subordinate when the merger took place.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: I guess there was a certain amount of feminist, woman suffrage aspect involved there, too.
Q: How about Elizabeth Wickenden?
Altmeyer: She's a very, very interesting person. I think she has one of the best minds in the field of social welfare. I think she unquestionably has the best expository ability of anyone in the social welfare field. She's a brilliant woman with tremendous energy.
Q: How did she become involved? How did the relationship develop?
Altmeyer: She goes way back to the days of Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams. She was Aubrey Williams' secretary, and she quit Aubrey because Aubrey was not organization-minded. She found it difficult to maintain an orderly course, so it became impossible for her to work with Aubrey and she quit. Preceding that she had of course a very fine education, and then her immediate contact with the Depression and all of its tragic impact on human beings just ground into the very fiber of her being. Then she carried on as a representative of the American Public Welfare Association and had to develop the thinking of that organization.
She was given more or less of a free hand to develop a philosophy for the Welfare Association. They gave her a base. Later she moved to the Social Welfare Assembly and the American Association of Social Workers, who were trying to find their way. In each one of the situations she had an opportunity to develop further and further her ideas and get a constituency to help put them into practice. She's a very interesting person. I find her very stimulating. I have to cheer her up every once in a while. She becomes very downcast at the stupidity and inhumanity of man.
Q: She feels these things very deeply.
Q: I gather then from what you've been saying that in her developing relationship with Social Security it was a matter of her own coming to conclusions on her own, thinking through her own ideas and attitudes that brought her into closer identification with the Social Security program.
Q: I take it that her influence during the most recent Medicare debate was quite an important element, that she was able to influence various outside organizations in a very constructive way.
Q: I wonder if you would be willing to put on the tapea brief biography of yourself and assessment of your own role in the Social Security picture.
Altmeyer: I can't assess my role really, but I'll tell you something about my origins and training and interests. I was born here in Wisconsin in the little town of De Pere and went to high school, graduated rather late because my mother had moved around considerably, and I went to various schools--some parochial and some public. In those days there were no aptitude tests or anything of that sort, and teachers didn't know what grade to put you in. I recall when I moved from one school to another I was put in fifth grade, I think it was, and a day or two later the teacher came to me and said, "Wouldn't you like to go in the next higher grade?" and I said no. The reason I said no was that I'd overheard the arithmetic lesson in the higher grade, and I hadn't had that yet. It was long division they called it then. The teacher didn't press me, and I thereupon lost the option of the movement onward and upward through the educational system. So I graduated at 19 from high school.
While in high school I had worked in my uncle's law office. He had succeeded to the practice of my grandfather. My grandfather on my maternal side was a Hollander, had come to this country in the 1850s, not a highly educated man; he probably had the equivalent of an eighth grade education at the most. He was a mason, as I recall. But he had considerable native ability, and he soon found out that you could buy a notary public license for a dollar. The other Hollanders who had migrated to this country with him apparently looked up to what they called a notarius publicus, which in the Dutch language gives considerable privilege. I don't know whether he ever had to pass an examination or not, but at any rate he became a lawyer. In a small town there wasn't too much legal business, so he also became a steamship agent and brought in probably thousands and thousands of Hollanders to settle in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. And in order to keep track of them or help them to keep track of each other he issued a monthly newspaper called De Gids, which means "The Guide." He got a lot of fun out of writing articles for that. He became a great flower fancier and horticulturist and had an orchard with hybrids of one kind or another. The only thing that we kids got out of it was climbing up in the cherry and apple trees and eating as much fruit as we could without dying.
He had a large family and this son who was my uncle quit high school but nevertheless came down to Madison here to a sort of a cram school that was in existence at that time and took the state bar examination and became a lawyer on his own.
Well, I worked in that office and learned a smattering of law, and I think more important than that learned a great deal about human nature and the difficulties of old people, who were farmers for the most part; and as they grew old and turned the farm over to the young folks with the promise of support for life and the failure to live up to those promises made a deep impression on me that I never forgot. That was back in 1910 and earlier when the old age problem wasn't recognized as a problem.
Also, when I was in that office, which, incidentally, wrote insurance, the workmen's compensation act, the first in the United States to be constitutional, was passed in this state. We got in the office a pamphlet from the Travelers' Insurance Company describing the act and explaining how it differed from employer's liability insurance. That was a new idea to me entirely, this business of paying because a man got hurt, for his wage loss without deciding whose fault it was. I remember reading that pamphlet and it stuck with me.
Well, I worked a year after graduation from high school, and that made me 20 years old. And I never dreamed of going down to the University because in those days there were no scholarships. My uncle, who really was just starting out as a lawyer and had two young children and didn't have any savings of his own, said that he'd loan me the money to go to the University, but he couldn't give me much. I remember I got $40 a month, and then in the summertime I would earn some money, and by the time I got out of the University I think my college debt was $1200. I was able to finish in three years because I entered as an adult special, they called it, so I made up a little bit of the time lost in the grades.
Q: $1200 was a lot of money in those days.
Altmeyer: Yes. And I had a teacher in the high school, who later became my wife, incidentally, she is still my wife, who had told me about John R. Commons and E. A. Ross and these were what we call institutional economists. She was a history teacher. I learned a lot and continued learning a lot from her all my life, got a feeling for history and the development of social legislation. So I took my work under John R. Commons, wrote my thesis under him, which was a very poor thesis; but he was entranced with graphs. If you could graph something or put it into a tabular form; that was a miracle. He was a member of the Industrial Commission appointed by Woodrow Wilson to study labor relations. One of the problems in the labor field was what they called scientific management in those days. I don't know what we would call it today. It was a rationalization of the industrial processes. Henry Ford later came along with his production line idea. It was all based on time studies, motions of workers, and what they went through and how long it took them for each motion in a process of craftsmanship really. Craftsmanship was passing out to some extent. But these time studies were even done on day laborers shoveling dirt and so on.
Along with that there was an incentive payment to encourage workers to work more efficiently after studying how they should. Then encouraging them to do as they should do to save time and increase output, they were paid some additional money.
Well, there was a Frederick Taylor, who was the high priest of scientific management. There were several others that came along. Commons assigned to me the job of reading what they had to say about scientific management and the various methods of incentive payments that they proposed. Well, I put it in tabular and graphic form. It was probably 20 or 30 pages, and Commons because very entranced with that, which of course made me feel that I had found my niche. If I could do a job that impressed the master that much, then I was sure that I was heading in the right direction.
But I didn't have any money, and I had a college debt to pay back; so I went out and got a job as a teacher in northern Minnesota. The school district was as big or maybe bigger than some of the New England states. I taught economics and commercial subjects and also was made purchasing agent for this huge school district. I got the enormous salary of $100 a month. Well, I stayed up there for a couple of years and then moved on to become principal of two schools in Kenosha. One was in a silk stocking district and one was in what we'd call today a ghetto. So I had contact with both worlds in the form of these youngsters that came to school. I found that the children of the affluent and the children of the un-affluent had problems, but they were different kinds of problems. So I got some insight into the texture of society, I guess, and economics underlying the various gradations of society.
Then as soon as my college debt was paid back I came back to the University of Wisconsin. Commons offered me an assistantship. It was one-fourth time paying $400, so I had to get myself a job in the State Tax Commission here in order to live. My wife got a job as the first married woman allowed to hold a regular teaching job in Madison. She had, incidentally, also taught junior high school over in Kenosha, which was one of the first junior high schools in the United States.
Q: How long were you out there? About how long did it take you to pay off the college debt?
Altmeyer: It took me four years. I had just paid it off by the time I came back here to take graduate work. Well, I got a job with the State Tax Commission, and my wife got a job teaching. Our economics were assured. But I also took full graduate work, and I discovered that Commons had no idea of the amount of effort required to carry out an idea of his, and he had many ideas every day. He'd have a new idea and he might abandon an old idea and not tell you about it, and you'd have stacked up any number of ideas that you were to follow up. So instead of working one-fourth time, I'd say I worked more than eight hours a day on work for Professor Commons. I worked down at the State Tax Commission, where my time was really fixed, and I know what time I put in there, which from about 8 till 12. So there were 12 hours, I'd say, out of the day. Then I was taking full time graduate work. I had to do that at night, and I recall many times I'd tumble into bed at maybe 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning. So that's the way it went until Ed Witte, who had become secretary of the Industrial Commission, called me up and said they had a job for a Chief Statistician. I think the staff of the statistical department was four, five or six. Would I be interested in it? I said I would, so I went up to become chief statistician of the Industrial Commission and held that job for two or three years when Witte resigned to become chief of the Legislative Reference Library. The Commission asked me whether I would be interested in Witte's job. I was. So I became secretary of the Industrial Commission in 1920, I think it was, and remained until I went down to Washington to help Miss Perkins, who had become Secretary of Labor, with the reorganization of the Labor Department. Then she asked me to become the representative of the Labor Department in the NRA, the National Recovery Administration, to be assistant compliance officer to supervise the enforcement of the labor provisions of the various industry codes. So I took that job.
I should say at that time I took a leave of absence from the Industrial Commission, and I hired people throughout the United States and the various states to look into how well the employers were observing the labor provisions in the code. Then after about six or seven months of that when I hired these people, and NRA seemed to be running along as well as might be expected, I decided I either had to fish or cut bait, which people tell me was a very favorite expression of mine in those days. I was always telling the experts: "Well, now, you've got to either fish or cut bait. What do you recommend?" So I became known as a guy who was telling everybody that they either had to fish or cut bait.
Well, I decided that I'd better go back to Wisconsin and do my job as Secretary. And I went over to tell Miss Perkins that. I think I had mentioned to her that I ought to be going back and I went over to say goodbye. She didn't happen to be in the office, so I took the evening train for Wisconsin. When I got back to Madison I had a telegram from her asking me to come right back. She wanted to talk to me. So I went right back and she asked me whether I would become Assistant Secretary of Labor. She had been importuned to appoint me Assistant Secretary of Labor by Molly Dawson (who became later a member of the Social Security Board and who had been active in the Consumers' League) and by other people, too, I suppose. But Miss Perkins didn't make up her mind often very readily.
Q: Was Senator LaFollette involved in that?
Altmeyer: No, not at all. One of the reasons that she told me that she had hesitated was there was a Republican carryover, a very nice gentleman, she said, and she just hated to dismiss him; and she asked me when she offered me the job whether I would mind waiting till July 1st, when he would be eligible for a pension. I said of course I'd be willing to wait.
Well, then, I resigned from my job as secretary of the Industrial Commission, moved on to Washington. Before I actually moved down, I must have commuted because I wrote the President's message to Congress saying that he wished they would go home and that he would submit a program for their consideration when they reconvened in January. He said it in very nice language, but that was the sum and substance of it. So in June of 1934, before I became Assistant Secretary of Labor, I must have been coming down. In July when I did actually become Assistant Secretary of Labor, I then had the job of writing an executive order setting up a Cabinet committee. Then I was given the job of lining up personnel. The most important was that of Executive Director, which was a full time job. I couldn't handle that, and I didn't think that even if I could work full time I was as good as Ed Witte. So I recommended Ed Witte. Harry Hopkins had suggested Sydenstricker, who was not in good health and also had confined his research to the field of health. Therefore, I think Hopkins was quite convinced and Sydenstricker I think was not interested actually. That was the only other possible candidate, so every agreed on Witte. I telephoned Witte, and he got a leave of absence, and I think the rest of it you can get out of his study of the development of the Social Security Act.
Q: There are a couple of questions that arise regarding the story that you've been telling me. First of all, when you came to Washington the first time, do you recall any of your reactions at that time, any of your feelings about the way things work in Washington or the way the Roosevelt Administration was going?
Altmeyer: Well, I was appalled at the difference in size, the magnitude of activities in Washington, as compared with Wisconsin.
Q: And it was nothing compared to what it is today.
Altmeyer: Yes, but that was my overriding impression. And I overcame that appallment, if there is such a word, by this technique: usually when I wanted to think through a problem in Washington, get some conception of its size, I would take the figures that I had or my ideas as they applied to Wisconsin and multiply by a factor of 40, which seemed to give some conception of the problem I was faced with in Washington compared to a similar problem on a state-wide basis.
Q: Was that a reflection of population, one-fortieth of the population?
Altmeyer: It varies, and one-fortieth of manufacturing and various other indices that I thought were relevant. One time I used it, I must say to the amazement and trepidation of the people that worked on old-age insurance. They came to me after months of study to present their ideas as to the field organization, the location of offices and the number and so on. I think I mentioned that in my book. They came up with a figure of 2050 or something like that of local offices that would be necessary for old age insurance. I was appalled. I read through their material, which was very well-prepared. They had all the evidence to support their contentions, very voluminous. But I was appalled at the number and the cost, because I had asked for a budget for the first year of $1 million, without the foggiest idea whether it was enough or not. Multiplying 2000 offices by $10,000 apiece gets you into astronomical figures as far a yokel from Wisconsin was concerned. So I used my favorite device of looking at the Wisconsin map, and I came up with 11 or 12 offices located in Eau Claire, Superior, Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison and so on, where I thought there out to be an office to deal with the surrounding territory. And then I multiplied that by 40 and I came up with 450 offices, so I rounded it off to 500. So I met with the experts on their report. I said, "I think we can get along with 500 offices." I don't think I ever told them--maybe I told them later--how I arrived at the figure, but actually we didn't get up to the 500 mark until maybe nine years later or so. Even today there are only about 750. So if we'd started with 2000 offices you can see what the legislative impact would have been and on the public generally. It's an amusing story, but nevertheless it shows how difficult it was to envisage the administrative task ahead.
Q: I think that's a very, very good example.
Altmeyer: As far as any color is concerned, I don't find any color in my character or my activities at all--not in the least.
I have a very methodical mind, I think a good mind, as far as that's concerned, an analytical mind, but not a flashy mind, and I think a conservative mind in weighing the pros and cons and probably leaning a little bit to the conservative side when it comes to an administrative decision, and probably when it comes to a legislative decision. Also so far as public relations were concerned I felt a great need for establishing the Social Security Board as an institution rather than focusing on individuals. For instance, Governor Winant:. I think it's probably all to the good that he didn't continue as Chairman, aside from the fact that he had no interest in administration. I think it was necessary to establish the Social Security Board as a more or less disembodied institution whose head couldn't be chopped off because of personalities involved in some decision. So that fitted into my notion of conservatism and desire not to stick my neck out too far. I think I do have pertinacity; and I think I have a certain amount of stubborn courage. Once I stake myself out, I think I don't retreat very readily, because I suppose I dislike the humiliation of having been wrong.
Q: Would you use the national health insurance fight as an example?
Altmeyer: I think so. Once having staked myself out, I just haven't any return. But I think I take my time about staking myself out.
Now, I might say that I think I was a pretty good administrator, although I think I dipped entirely too much into the minutiae of administration in my first year particularly, the first year or two, because it was so difficult. The problems were all novel problems. You couldn't assign them to subordinates because you yourself didn't know what all the considerations were and you had to learn by doing. Furthermore, we had some very unfortunate appointments because of compromises made between members of the Social Security Board--some personnel that was inefficient and even worse, had commitments or relations with members of Congress. At any rate, they were not completely dedicated to the task as a task without ulterior motivation. That was particularly true in the Bureau of Old Age Benefits. So I had to actually go through all the personnel recommendations. I would go through just piles and piles of personnel recommendations to be sure that there wasn't something in the file that was negative to the recommendation. That was not good administration, and I'm sure I got on the nerves of the Executive Director and the Bureau chiefs. I think we passed out of that stage eventually, although I think to the end, because I started out as an administrator in Wisconsin, I took too much interest in decisions that should have been or could have been delegated down the line.
All I can add is that I think the test of good administration is whether you are anonymous or whether you're a character, a public character. If you're a public character or if you have any desire to be a public character, you're not likely to be interested in administration as such. I think anonymity is desirable, so that you don't get the public involved in making decisions based on personality rather than on accomplishments. There's great need for characters standing out, like Shriver. My goodness, you need a character like Shriver to sell a program and capture the imagination of the public. But that is far from my capacities or interests as you can imagine. I would shrink from that kind of undertaking. So I have said many times that a successful administrator ought to be about as interesting as spinach--cold spinach at that. That ought to be the idea. Now, that's not the kind of thing you can write a biography about. I don't think you'll find anything colorful in my whole career. I'd be surprised if you did.
Q: That's a contribution anyway. It's more than we knew before.
You mentioned a moment ago that Shriver served a useful purpose in selling his program. How about the problem of selling the Social Security program in the early days?
Altmeyer: Well, the way we sold it was different. I think it would have been a mistake for a Shriver to try to sell Social Security. It was too unknown, too--
Altmeyer: Well, no. There were too many political forces that could have ruined us before we actually got off the ground and got started. A colorful character like Harry Hopkins, for example, would never have gotten it going, because of the animosities, whether justified or not, focusing on an individual and coloring and obscuring the purposes and the progress being made administratively. I spoke of institutionalization of the Social Security Board. Years after the real Social Security Board ceased to exist and I became Commissioner of Social Security, people would call me up and want to know what the Social Security Board thought about this or that or the other thing--members of Congress. I'm sure that if you went up to Congress today you might find some fellow talking about the Social Security Board. Well, it avoided the sort of attack due to personalities. It also gave weight to decisions that had to be made, very difficult and very sensitive decisions from a political standpoint--political insofar as Congressional relations were concerned, political insofar as federal-state relations were concerned. But when you wrote, "The Social Security Board's policy is this, " or "the Social Security Board has decided," or you issued a statement of rules and regulations of the Social Security Board, it was something that carried tremendous weight just because of the aura surrounding an institution. As we got over the hump and people saw that this was a program that was going to live (many people, of course, thought that it would never get off the ground, especially the old age insurance), that aura stayed with the Social Security Board throughout the years. I think that was a very important factor in the success of it.
Q: Who were some of the people that didn't think it was going to get off the ground? Are there any particular individuals that stand out as opponents early in it?
Altmeyer: Oh, they weren't opponents necessarily. I want to tell you that there were a lot of people, including myself, that weren't sure it would get off the ground. If you had polled the Cabinet committee, I think you would have found that most of them would say, "Well, we've just got a bare chance," so far as old age insurance was concerned, where you actually had the federal government obliged to do the administering directly.
Q: Why did they have such reservations?
Altmeyer: Why, the gigantic size of the task, and we were told by experts that it was too unwieldily, you can't do it. Those were pre-electronic processing days, you see.
Q: Yes, before IBM.
Altmeyer: Well, no, IBM was in the picture--the Hollerith cards they called them. They were in existence, but they required a lot of manual work. Even the simplest task of recording had to be thought through. An index with millions and millions of identical names had to be devised, a phonetic approach to it, and the construction of the visible panels with little card slips in them. Those are just kindergarten stuff today. You wonder why anybody worried. But they were a matter of life or death in those days. And the collection of contributions! The Bureau of Internal Revenue said they didn't want to take the job. They opposed taking the job. They said to me as late as 1938: "We'd wish you'd take over this job." It interfered with their regular work. Now they wouldn't give it up because it aids them in catching tax dodgers. The Social Security numbers are used for all kinds of purposes now. In those days a Social Security number, that was enough to wreck the program before it got started. Everybody was going to be given a number and finger-printed? Really, that could have been an issue in the next campaign and wiped out the program before it even got started. It's hard to conceive of the problems that we had administratively and psychologically.
Q: And yet despite all the reservations, even in the Cabinet committee, as you say, the decision was made to go ahead and include old age insurance.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: Why did it carry the day?
Altmeyer: Well, because we were told you couldn't do it on a state-by-state basis. We'd have been only too glad, I think, to do it on a state-by-state basis. I know we would have been only too glad, as we did with unemployment compensation. As I say, I'm a conservative. I probably would have started with what seemed to be the easiest way and then hoped that we could move onward and upward as we gained experience, but we were told by the actuaries that you just couldn't run it on a state-by-state basis.
Q: So it was a matter of choosing the lesser of the impossibilities.
Altmeyer: Choosing nothing or taking a long chance. And we were told after it was made law by the insurance people, "You've got something you can't administer. You ought to break it down into regions at least, independent regions." It was something inconceivable to anybody. European systems? Why that's equivalent to a state. Here you've got 40 times a state. The problems weren't just in arithmetic proportions; they were in geometric proportions.
Q: I guess you must have been pretty discouraged when you saw how the British did it, with ledgers.
Altmeyer: I saw how they did it. Here's how naive I was and how wrong I was. I felt that you never could get compliance by the employers unless you did adopt a stamp system. I was thinking of the smaller employers, with whom I least was very familiar in Wisconsin. They're the ones who pay no attention to laws because they are the favorites of the legislators, the small businessmen, you see, who support the candidates for office and that sort of thing and have influence in the locality. Then there's pity for them, hitting them with another tax.
Q: And aren't they too small to bother with in terms of investigating them?
Altmeyer: Yes. And so I thought that a stamp system a worker having a book in which he could get his stamp every week or every month when he was paid and know whether the employer was making contributions was the only way. Pitney-Bowes developed a very simple stamp machine costing about $5, so there wouldn't have been just stamp licking with a tongue. It could have worked. And then you could have a mix, and I envisaged a mix of employers of a certain size and making a certain showing of financial responsibilities who could report one way and give receipts to their employees semi-annually or annually or at the time they ceased their employment; and then the smaller employers who could use the stamp book system. Well, the Internal Revenue wouldn't have this. That's when they said, "We wish you'd take the whole damn job. You can have your stamp system or anything else as long as we can be free of it." Fortunately, they didn't accept the stamp system. Fortunately, they stayed with the collecting because we could never have developed a nation-wide network of collection in time. They didn't pay as much attention to collections as we would have wanted them to, but nevertheless they were much more successful than a new agency would have been. And it would have been confusing, too, to the public. It wouldn't have worked. But, I think if there hadn't been a constitutional difficulty which led to two separate titles in the Social Security Act, we would have been stuck with the collection as well as the payment of benefits--we have the Social Security Board--and we might have made one holy mess of the whole thing. So, you see, many things could have happened to this giant of today.
Q: There were a lot of good reasons for anxiety about it.
Altmeyer: Yes, and when you look back, it's really quite miraculous that we were able to survive and grow.
Q: I suppose in fairness you must say that a lot of people contributed to its success.
Altmeyer: Surely. I think most of the success was due to the employee training program and the insistence that we were a social agency. We kept clerks here, as well as the higher-ups, for months before they went out and set up local offices. So they just had religion. They had it complete. "You're going out there to help people achieve their rights under this great social program. Don't sit back and let them try to prove their case. You have to help them." We got into difficulties with the General Accounting Office because it said, "You're violating an 1835 law that says no federal official shall encourage a claim against the federal government or assist in its prosecution," or something like that. We had quite a time convincing them that this was a different kind of animal--that because of contributions there were certain rights, statutory rights, that had to be recognized and achieved, and we had an obligation. We said they had no reason to object, but I think they thought we were pretty damned anti-government to do that sort of thing. But we made many mistakes and we are making many mistakes today--delays. If it weren't for the fact that people throughout the United States in their contacts with these people at the desks in the local offices got the impression: "Why, that fellow is trying to help me. If there's a mistake, it isn't his fault. He'll do everything to try to straighten it out"--if it weren't for that general attitude, we would have had trouble. I'm sure it exists. I've been told by literally hundreds and hundreds of people that that's the reaction they get to their encounter with local offices. I'm sure we would have been licked even if we had done everything as well as could be expected administratively without that. It was the character that was established.
Q: You did it for different reasons, but it turned out to be awfully good public relations.
Altmeyer: Awfully good public relations, although I had that ground into me by Commons in connection with workmen's compensation so that it wasn't a new idea.
Q: Those doubts and anxieties about whether or not the program could work and whether you could administer it, was this something that came into focus after the bill was passed or was there a lot of discussion, and even the specifics about the kind of system you could use--?
Altmeyer: You're talking about old age insurance now?
Q: Yes, and the stamp system. Did you discuss such specifics as that in the Committee of Economic Security?
Altmeyer: Not in the Cabinet committee, no. But we did discuss it with the staff.
Q: Even before the act passed.
Altmeyer: Oh, yes.
Q: The way you set this up. Can this be administered?
Altmeyer: Yes. There was no question about it. In the Cabinet committee and among the staff, we had serious doubts whether it could be administered. But we had no choice.
Q: Yes, you had to take the risk.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: How about during those first few months? Was there any point at which you began to feel maybe you could make it work, you could see the light?
Altmeyer: Oh, no. The real test wasn't coming until the law actually went into effect, and we had so many doubts that we deliberately fixed it January 1st, 1937, for the old age benefits title to go into effect. That was to give us a year and a half to prepare for the deluge. And, then you see, even by that time the law had not been declared constitutional. Aside from these administrative problems that looked insuperable, there was the whole business of constitutionality. We didn't know whether we'd have a law. And I think some people hoped to heaven that we'd be taken out of our misery by the Court declaring it unconstitutional.
Q: Like the NRA.
Altmeyer: It wasn't until November of 1936 that we had to start assigning account numbers. We used the expression "account numbers" instead of registration or anything of that kind for semantic reasons, to give it an aura of respectability and familiarity.
Q: Who was responsible for that term?
Altmeyer: I was. I tried to think of every semantic device possible to avoid charges of regimentation and a Gestapo and all that sort of thing. Even then we were caught in the 1936 campaign oratory. We deliberately set the assignment of account numbers after the campaign would be over. The Republicans jumped the gun on us. Fortunately we had all the literature telling what a wonderful act this was and the benefits to counteract their criticism that this was another new tax that the New Deal had imposed upon you.
Q: Did you anticipate this in preparing that literature?
Altmeyer: Not at all.
Q: You had to prepare the literature after the attacks started?
Altmeyer: No, we had it prepared because we were going to distribute that at the same time as we assigned account numbers.
Q: I see. You just used it prematurely.
Altmeyer: Yes. We started out by putting it in the hands of the labor organizations throughout the country, which distributed it at the factory gates. It had been sent out in advance to be available on whatever the date was--on November 15th, I think it was--so they were all there ready to go, not because we anticipated the attacks but because we needed it in connection with the assignment of account numbers. Because it was not yet known whether or not it would be constitutional, the employers wouldn't have anything to do with it. "Hell, it's never going to be a law. Why should we bother with it?" And that was true of unemployment insurance, too.
Q: Was there any point at which you had a realization that it was going to work?
Altmeyer: Well, probably we really didn't have too much confidence until we got to the stage of posting employers' reports. Then we were so scared we set up 12 production lines, one for each region, because we were told we never could handle the volume unless we broke it down. It cost us about a million dollars to run 12 different production lines for processing the reports. We abandoned that after a year. But it wasn't until we actually went through that painful process. Then we had millions of so-called John Does, which you know from my book that the Drew Pearson-Robert Allen column jumped on. They said that millions of people would never get their benefits, that you can't post millions of employers' reports called John Does.
So, you see, there was a long time before there was any great certainty that this thing was going to survive.
Q: There was never any sudden realization, then--there was just a gradual lessening of the anxiety, as one obstacle after another was dissolved.
Altmeyer: That's right. By 1939 I think we were sure that we could go ahead and work on amendments--maybe by 1938.
Q: How about President Roosevelt? Did he have any doubts in the early days?
Altmeyer: He didn't know. He was not interested in administration. He just assumed that Altmeyer knew his stuff, and he didn't want to be bothered.
Q: You think he had confidence in you?
Altmeyer: Oh, yes, sure. He wasn't interested in it. He was bored stiff. I couldn't have kept him interested in any of my woes. He laughed them off. That's the only way he could survive, I suppose.
Q: Just not face reality sometimes.
Altmeyer: His wife tried to get him to listen to me and my proposals for legislation and so on, but unless it was something really dramatic that he thought would be a political issue, he didn't want to listen. He might make a recommendation, but he wouldn't recommend it with enthusiasm unless he saw it as a great political issue.
Q: His responses were very political in their--
Altmeyer: I don't mean in a partisan sense--I mean in large sense of a great governmental issue. He couldn't exist, no President can, if he gets to worrying about administration.
Q: Do you recall any specific attempts to discuss the problem with the President?
Altmeyer: Administrative problems?
Altmeyer: Well, I mention in my book when I'd get into a jam with no way out between two Senators in a given state demanding that they each have the sole prerogative to make appointments, he'd just shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, cheer up. The good Lord will take Senator McKellar in his own good time." That didn't help me a bit.
There was this business with the Jewish proportion. That attracted his attention because he got complaints from the Hill. How did he resolve it? He said, "How many do you have?"
I said, "I don't know. We don't classify our employees by race or religion."
"Well, how many do you think?"
I said, "I'd be surprised if we had more then ten per cent" or "five per cent."
He thought that was a big joke. He said, "Why, that isn't as much as they have at Harvard."
Q: Of course that's a story that was rather a famous incident. This was one that involved Henry Aronson.
Altmeyer: It was very serious at the time because there was anti-Semitism in the Ways and Means Committee, very strong anti-Semitism. It could have wrecked us.
Q: Was that some of the Southerners?
Altmeyer: Yes, including the future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Q: How about the chairman?
Altmeyer: He was a kindly gentleman. I don't know whether I mentioned this in my book or not. He said to me: "Doctor, I hate to mention this, but I like you very much. You should be careful about hiring too many of your brethren." He used the expression "brethren."
I didn't know what he was leading up to. I said, "What do you mean?"
He said, "I hear that you're hiring a great many Jews."
I then said, "Well, I'm not a Jew."
Well, that came as a complete revelation to him. He assumed from the name apparently--it was a German name--and he'd been told from other members of the Ways and Means Committee. Jere Cooper was another one who felt we had too many Jews. You see, they were the two leading members of the Ways and Means Committee.
Q: When we stopped talking this morning, among other things, you had mentioned the attitude of the Internal Revenue people toward collecting Social Security taxes, that they did it but they were not keen on the idea when it was first put to them. I wonder about the situation regarding the post office participation in registration.
Altmeyer: Just the reverse. They were very cooperative. We were in quite a bind there. If we hadn't had the full and enthusiastic participation of the post office, we would have been sunk right from the beginning.
Q: Who principally? Was there one individual over there?
Altmeyer: Mr. Farley. I saw him and he sent word and everybody down the line just took it on with a great deal of enthusiasm.
Q: I guess this is one thing that Mr. Farley has not been given credit for. He's always been thought of asa very shrewd politician, although I suppose making the Social Security program work was good politics, too.
Altmeyer: Well, he was a very loyal Roosevelt man before the break with Roosevelt, and Social Security had been touted and had become an issue in the campaign. As a matter of fact, there was a famous cartoon showing Farley at the height of the row during the '36 Presidential campaign running from a curr snapping at his heels. The curr was labeled "Social Security." He was saying, "What's gotten into this damned dog?" or something like that. It was trying to bite him, you see. So he was well aware of the row, and I suppose it appealed to his partisan spirit to pitch in and make sure it worked.
Q: We were also talking this morning about your owns biography, and there is one story that I've heard in connection with your own participation in Social Security that I'd like to ask you about. That's a story to the effect that at one point when Frank Bane was in the process of deciding to leave Social Security that you went to him and offered to switch jobs with him.
Altmeyer: I may have. I don't remember. Maybe I felt that I had been butting in too much, that I was better fitted for administration and he was better fitted to serve as a member of the Board. I don't have any recollection of it. Why don't you ask him?
Q: I will. I was very impressed frankly. Apparently, if I understood it correctly, you were willing to step down into a job of lesser prestige for the sake of a cause, to keep him in Social Security.
Altmeyer: Well, he's very good negotiator, a pacifier. He went out to see these governors. He had charm, you know--an easy manner.
Q: Especially Southerners, I guess.
Altmeyer: Yes, all the governors. He made a great success later on as the director of the Governors' Council. I couldn't do that sort of thing anywhere nearly as good as he. I may have made that offer. I haven't any recollection of it.
Q: Incidentally, it struck me that one of the groups that was excluded from the Social Security Act in '35 was agricultural workers. I wonder if that had anything to do with the Southerners and the concern--
Altmeyer: No, we were smart enough politically to know there was no chance of covering the farmers to begin with. They had been excluded traditionally from all forms of regulatory legislation, labor legislation, particularly workmen's compensation even to this day. No, they're the last stronghold of individualism, reactionism, independence--whatever you want to call it. I thought when we got them under in 1950 we'd really crossed the mountain.
Q: Did it make a difference politically that they were not included in terms of the Southern reaction?
Altmeyer: I don't think that it's Southern. Don't blame the Southerners for that.
Q: I was thinking of the question of Negroes being included.
Altmeyer: That might have come up, but you didn't have to have that burden. The Northern farmer is just as opposed to coming into any relationship with welfare legislation.
Q: Oh, yes. I ask this because one of the things that struck me about the Townsend Plan and the opposition of Southerners to that was that the Townsend Plan would have provided $200 pensions for everybody, including Negroes, and there was a lot of feeling in the South against the Townsend movement.
Altmeyer: I'd never had occasion to think about it that far.
Q: Well, in any case, it certainly wasn't an important consideration as far as you know.
Somebody we didn't talk about this morning when we went into biographies of people that were prominent in the early days of Social Security was Mr. Miles. I wonder if you knew anything about his background.
Altmeyer: I didn't until he was appointed. Miss Perkins recommended him because she felt that there had to be a Southerner and also, I thought naively, someone who could deal with the politicians on the Hill. He had been national committeeman from Arkansas and a Legionnaire, so she felt that he was the kid who should have the political savvy that I lacked and that maybe she felt Winant lacked.
He was a very pathetic figure. He really didn't know the first thing about Social Security or social legislation. He was well-intentioned, except that he was highly politically sensitive, unduly so, it seemed to me; and his feelings were always being hurt because he felt that Winant and I conspired against him, were in league against him. So he was a very unhappy man, and there were times that we made concessions to him in appointments that he wanted that we felt we shouldn't have made. McCormack, a man who's dead now, poor devil, was one. He was a man of brilliance. He was the one that did all the planning that I was telling about as to the locations of field offices and so on. But he had a tremendous ego. He had a power complex as well as feeling politically obligated to Miles and various politicians. I think he wanted to win their regard and friendship, and I don't think he succeeded in doing so. I remember Jere Cooper, who was highly political and demanding patronage and was one of the two powerful men besides the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, saying to me when I had mentioned McCormack as a person that had been chosen from his state (I think he came from Tennessee), "Don't tell me that. Don't try to satisfy me by telling me you appointed McCormack. I've known him from way back, World War I." He was a Legionnaire and so was McCormack. He said, "He thinks that he won the war and that Pershing was his aide de camp." So if he thought he was winning friends on the Hill by some of his machinations, it wasn't so. But anyway he gave us a lot of trouble.
Q: There's a story about how he was not reappointed that involved a telephone call from Miss Mulliner to Senator Wagner andthen from Senator Wagner to the President. Does this accord with your recollections?
Altmeyer: No. The President wasn't brought into it at all. I think I fired him without any urging from any source.
Q: I'm sorry. I was talking about Miles now.
Altmeyer: Oh, say that again.
Q: That when it came time for Miles' reappointment when his term ran out, there was a phone call made by Maurine Mulliner to Senator Wagner after Miles had already left the offices on his way over to the White House to speak with the President. And Wagner called the President before Miles got there.
Altmeyer: I never heard of it.
Q: Do you have any recollection of the circumstances surrounding this?
Altmeyer: Gee, I know that I was responsible for not having him reappointed, but who I asked I don't recall. I'm sure that if I'd spoken directly to the President, I would remember that. But who I asked to get the word to the President, I don't know. It may be that I asked Maurine Mulliner to call Wagner. I haven't any doubt that I asked Miss Perkins to tell the President how undesirable it would be for him to be reappointed.
Q: So in all probability he received recommendations from more than one source.
Altmeyer: Yes. I'm sorry to say I--I probably was chiefly responsible. I just felt that it was an impossible situation. Things were going from bad to worse. We just couldn't go on that way. They gave him a good job as counsel over in the post office department. He later tried to commit suicide, and I think he finally succeeded--the poor devil.
Q: I didn't know about that. Do you know of any other people besides Miss Perkins who undoubtedly were involved in recommending against Miles' appointment?
Altmeyer: I really don't remember.
Q: You probably would remember anybody important.
Altmeyer: Well, I don't know. It's all very vague in my mind. I know I was also responsible for having Molly Dewson appointed as his successor, but how I did it, I don't recall. I never saw any memos in my files to the President about it. And I don't recall ever talking with him directly about it. I think I would certainly remember if I had. But I must have talked to various people.
Q: Frances Perkins? Would she have recommended her?
Altmeyer: I would think that she would have been one that I talked to. You see, he got the short term--two years--and it wasn't very long. Miss Perkins and I were still working very closely together.
Q: Speaking of Miles, there's another story that I would like to bring up, and that's a story to the effect that he became involved with Miss Woodward. As I understand it, he went to her to try to in effect create trouble.
Altmeyer: Why would he go her? She hadn't anything to do with Social Security when he was a board member.
Q: Well, maybe I've got the story wrong--that she was in fact re-associated with the Board at that point.
Altmeyer: Oh, no. She succeeded Molly Dewson, you see.
Q: Now that you mention it, you're right. Of course I recall this. I don't know why I have her name. But there was a story. Maybe the person who told me it confused the person with someone else. The story nonetheless is that he attempted to try to make difficulties for Frank Bane.
Altmeyer: I think you're got Molly Dewson and Miss Woodward mixed up. He probably talked with Molly Dewson, his successor.
Q: It was the person who told me, I think, who got it confused.
Altmeyer: He hated Frank Bane because he thought Frank Bane was doing what Winant and I wanted him to do.
Q: He was your pawn?
Q: But you do recall this now. The transcript of the conversation was taken to Bane.
Altmeyer: Oh, I don't remember that.
Q: There was a secretary taking notes, believe it or not.
Altmeyer: The secretary of whom?
Q: Frank Bane's secretary.
Altmeyer: Was taking notes of the conversation? Where would she be in a position to take notes?
Q: In the room with the woman he was talking with?
Altmeyer: In the room with the woman he was talking with?
Q: No. I'm sorry; it was Molly Dewson's secretary, I guess. And then the transcript was taken to Bane.
Altmeyer: Well, it may be. That would make it credible. But what's the point of this?
Q: I was wondering whether youwere involved in this and whether the story is accurate or not.
Altmeyer: No, I accept responsibility for being most active in convincing the President--either directly or indirectly, I forget which--not to reappoint him. But Frank Bane shouldn't be blamed for that. Maybe he did blame Frank Bane; I don't know. Molly Dewson had been head of the women's division of the Democratic National Committee, and he probably felt that she would be sympathetic to him as a former national committeeman and his trials and tribulations.
Q: I wasn't relating this to the reappointment or trying to assign blame. I was simply trying to confirm this story, because it does reflect some of the internal tensions and difficulties that you had.
Altmeyer: Heaven's sakes, that's minor; that's trivial compared with other tensions. I wouldn't think it was at all important.
Q: Well, of course these things cause unpleasantness and difficulties at that time. It was part of what went on.
Altmeyer: Well, he was gone. The story would be ex post facto or maybe the last day he was in office. But I would guess it would have been after he went out of office, that he then would have talked with his successor, Molly Dewson, whom he would bear no ill will--first because she had worked in the political field with him, and second because I think I made the argument that it was good to have a woman member of the Board. I maybe used that as one of my arguments for another person to succeed Miles. I don't know whether it was ever used by the President to explain to Miles why he wasn't reappointed or not, but I have a vague recollection that I did use that as one of the arguments for her appointment.
Q: You said that there were a great many more important tensions.
Altmeyer: You know, if I tried to remember all these things, I would have gone crazy--if they stayed in my consciousness, you know. I am a very convenient "forgetter" when it comes to personalities and personal difficulties. So I can't help you on in-fighting. In fact, I detest it so much that I think I reject the memories of that sort of thing. I have such a disgust for it. I hate this business of rumor-mongering and scuttlebutt that goes on in an organization. I suppose it went on in Social Security, but I wanted no part of it.
Q: Except of course sometimes you were put in a position where you kind to deal with some of it, things that came up as a result.
Altmeyer: Yes, sure.
Q: In a general way, without going into any specifics or without dragging up memories that may have faded, were there any other important tensions which you can describe in a general say in terms of personnel?
Altmeyer: When Mrs. Woodward succeeded Molly Dewson, we again had a problem of a lady who had been an important figure in the New Deal who wanted to be very cooperative, overly cooperative, and a charming person, but whose feelings were often hurt because she felt that she wasn't being taken into our confidences--by "our" I mean my confidence and Frank Bane's or anybody else's. She wanted to be helpful but she didn't want to be excluded. She tried hard to understand the intricacies of the program and administration. She did work furiously, but she found it difficult to understand, and she would go over the same ground time and time and time again with Maurine Mulliner or Wilbur Cohen or some other member of the staff and just drive them to desperation. Incidentally, her mind is gone now so you really can't interview her to find out anything. We went over to see her a couple of times when we were in Washington, but her mind is so badly addled now that while she'll recognize you, she'll talk to you as if it was 15 to 20 years back and then not remember that you were there before or just what's happened.
Q: Like a computer that's been short-circuited.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: How about Jane Hoey? Have you been in touch with her lately?
Altmeyer: I call her every time I get to New York. She's in very bad shape. She's still in a wheelchair unable to walk, and her speech in very thick. I don't know whether her mind's affected or not. I don't think so. But she's very feeble and too feeble to see people.
Of course Jane was and is a warm-hearted woman, and we had many hot arguments. She felt that I didn't understand social work and social workers, for example, and her feelings would be hurt if I didn't accept her suggestions or proposals. And I felt that she relied too much on calling conferences, that it was all right to get advice but individuals have to accept responsibility for making decisions. Social workers are prone to seek decisions through consensus, you see. Maybe they're like other professional people, I don't know; but the play of minds in focusing on a problem intrigues them. They see so many facets of a problem that sometimes it's difficult to reach consensus or decision. I think I used to hammer at the necessity for action.
Then with the lawyers half-jokingly and half-seriously I would take them to task and insist that they stay within their role of adviser not line officer. And they accepted it. I think we had considerable affection for each other. I think they enjoyed the contest, it you want to call it that.
Q: I gather that Mr. Eliot was a pretty strong-minded man, pretty assertive.
Altmeyer: Yes, he was young and cocky, but he wasn't there too long really to make a dent. Talking of the lawyers generally, I think they were and are a wonderful group. They worked very hard, and they took my rejection of their legal advice very well. They gave me an opportunity to understand exactly what all the arguments were contrary to what I wanted them to do. I felt that I had to take them into account before making final decisions. So they were very helpful, if not in a positive manner, then in a negative manner.
Q: There are so many other things that we could talk about here. How about Isadore Falk?
Altmeyer: Wait a second. I think that while we're talking; about the role that lawyers played that we also ought to say a bit about actuaries and also accountants. I had the same problem with them. I needed their advice and expertise, but I couldn't divest myself of how far I would accept that advice before I took action. Mr. Williamson became more and more a cosmic philosopher, so we had to let him go. He became obsessed with the notion that contributory social insurance was just not the right way to deal with the problem of insecurity. It ought to be a social dividend approach. That is, there ought to be grants made--perhaps like what we have now with the way-out guys that feel we should distribute the gross national product every year and feel that work should be a privilege not a necessity. Well, I think he was a precursor of that sort of thing, and he made life difficult for us because you couldn't keep him down. He was utterly irrepressible and irresponsible. He wouldn't accept his role as an adviser. He had a messianic complex, still has.
Then the accountants, the auditors: Well, they felt their responsibility very keenly, and they would take audit exceptions and that would make the social workers very mad. They would say, "The accountants can add and subtract numbers, but they don't know anything about human beings and how their needs should be assessed and how social programs should be administered." They'd claim that accountants by taking exceptions to these payments in individual cases were messing up things for them and for the states.
Well, again, you had to tell the accountants: "You can't take over the responsibility of administering public assistance. You have to stay within your role as a technician in a particular field. You have to check to see whether the books are kept right but you can't make social decisions."
So that whole area that's involved in any administration, whether it's social or otherwise but especially social, is still very much of an art. The administrative management people, whatever they're called, would try to draw up charts and do draw charts showing line and staff, chain of command and all this sort of thing--they are helpful, but they never solve the real problem of relationships of technicians to persons who make decisions. They never solve the problem of relationship between the central office and the field. It's impossible. Out in the field you also have the line and staff people, and each principal back in Washington wants them responsible to him. So you get the lines criss-crossed, and every effort is made to write job descriptions so they don't step on each other's toes, but without success really. You cannot separate out all the elements and put them in little packages and the other fellow take that package. It doesn't work that way. They have to learn to have respect for each other and the contribution the other can make. Beyond that, you just have to pray.
Q: Yes. I guess they have to be motivated bysomething higher than their own personal ambitions so that they're willing at times to sublimate that to some larger goal.
Altmeyer: That's right.
Q: Well, in the time we have left here, I wonder if we could talk first about Isadore Falk. I think we've touched on him in previous interviews. I wonder if you could add anything to what you've said already in terms of your personal assessment of him and your relationship to him and your feelings about his contribution.
Altmeyer: I don't know what I've said. I'll probably repeat myself. I'd say Falk was a very brilliant man. I think he perhaps had the finest mind of anybody around the shop there insofar as taking a thing apart in infinitely small pieces and examining them is concerned. He left nothing unexamined. He was a difficult taskmaster because he was a perfectionist. He didn't like sloppy thinking, sloppy analysis, sloppy proposals. Furthermore, he wanted to be kept informed and have everybody telling him what they were doing. So his relations with the staff were never very happy, and a number of people resigned. They would come to me first and say their professional integrity was being infringed on and being impaired. It always simmered down to the fact that Falk wouldn't accept their advice or would rewrite their proposals and recommendations, which he had a perfect right to do. That's what I would have to explain to these people; that as longs as I had confidence in a chief of the bureau, I had to permit him to have supervision over the operations of his bureau. I couldn't step in between him and a member of the staff. If I felt things were too bad, the only recourse I had was to ask a chief of a bureau to resign; but until then, I just couldn't do anything; about it. I think I actually talked with Falk on many occasions and tried to get him to be a little less autocratic and meticulous, but it was in his nature. So he never ran a happy ship. That's my impression. Now, maybe someone who was in his shop would give you a different impression. But there were three or four very highly qualified, I thought, people of integrity who resigned because they couldn't perform. But, as I say, I had to take the pluses and minuses and decide whether the pluses outweighed the minuses. And he was a superb technician, particularly in the field of health. So I kept him on. Maybe I made the wrong decision.
Is that what I said before?
Q: I would say it's consistent with what you said before, butit's amplified considerably.
Altmeyer: Incidentally, Cohen and Falk got along very well. And, you see, Cohen was in a very anomalous position. He was a loose nut so far as organization was concerned. I don't think I had him on the staff of Bureau of Research and Statistics. He was adviser to me directly. But nevertheless he had to work with Falk, taking the results of the Research and Statistics Bureau and using them in the development of programs. So he was in a very delicate position. Falk could justifiably say, "Well, that's my job. Why do you have to step in between me and the policy makers? Why can't I have direct dealings?" But I suppose it was bridged in the way that Falk and Cohen and I would usually be all together at the same time. At any rate, so far as I know there was never any bickering or blowing off between the two men who were in what any organizationally minded person or expert would say was an impossible situation.
Q: Which comes back to something you said before--
Altmeyer: They had to be motivated to feel that they were all contributing to a common end, and their particular contribution was significant in reaching that end.
Q: Incidentally, since you've brought the subject up, I wonder if you could explain the reasoning and the circumstances behind your decision to place Wilbur Cohen in the kind of job he had and the kind of position hehad under you.
Altmeyer: He was a natural for that kind of job. I first became conscious of him when he was sitting just behind me when I was testifying on something or other, and I was stuck for an answer because I didn't have the facts and he reached over and handed me a sheet that gave me the information I needed to answer the question. I took a second look at the chap. I don't really recall when I first met him. He didn't have any impact upon my consciousness until Witte had finished his work and we were organizing the staff of the Social Security Board.
Q: When was this testifying that you refer to? Was this when the Social Security bill was before the Congress?
Altmeyer: No, it was afterwards. It may have been a budget hearing or something of that sort, because we didn't have any legislation until 1939 of importance. It was a meeting, and as I recall, a meeting where I was testifying. It may have been a conference. But I remember very well that I wondered who that chap was. Then of course--I can't remember how I got to know him better and better--but I realized that here was a mind that turned over very rapidly. And he also had a personality that did not arouse antagonisms or resentments. He could go to subordinates in the various bureaus and get information that was necessary, and the bureau chiefs wouldn't start howling that these requests should be channeled through them and they ought to know what was going on. He was that sort of a person. He could assemble material regardless of bureaucratic lines. And vice versa. The subordinates and bureau chiefs could talk freely with him about their problems of one kind and another. He would tactfully bring me their ideas or complaints or whatnot. So he was a natural for that sort of free-lance position, where bureaucratic lines have to be completely obliterated if you're ever going to make any progress. But they have to be completely obliterated so that no one feels that proper channels have been broken down and the situation is out of hand and nobody knows what anybody else is doing and isn't consulted on matters affecting their field of interest and so on. Any big organization head has to have some free-lance people, assistants. That's why you see these "assistants to" in any bureau or department. The principal policy maker just can't operate through the hard official channels in trying to get a synthesis of thinking and a focus for action. That's why the State Department is having such a hell of a time.
Q: They haven't a Wilbur Cohen.
Altmeyer: No. Wilbur Cohen didn't solve all the problems in Social Security, but I needed him because of that persistent problem, that insoluble problem of communication.
Then he also had the knack of being able to talk with the assistants on the Hill, to these important political figures up there who really do the work. There was a two-way flow being established all the time without anybody's nose being out of joint, the Senators and Congressmen. Their prerogatives they didn't fear were being impaled because the staff people were consulting with each other. If I had gone to talk with their assistants and gotten them committed to something or other, there'd be hell to pay. They wouldd say, "Why didn't you talk with me?" You have to have that free flow.
Q: How did he make the transition up to the Hill rather than just internal liaison?
Altmeyer: I think it was natural. Senator Wagner's and Senator Murray's offices had the staff people we needed to talk with. If we were working on a Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill , of course--
Q: So, in other words, he was assigned to negotiate.
Altmeyer: It wasn't a formal assignment. He went up and got to know the people up there; they got to know him.
Q: It would have happened more or less casually. You'd get a call from some Senator's office and you simply said to Wilbur, "Go up there."
Altmeyer: It was never a formal assignment. The nearest to a formal assignment was when I asked him to go over and work with Sam Rosenman after President Roosevelt died and Sam Rosenman was writing up various documents for Truman. He spent several weeks almost continuously over there. That was about the only formal assignment I can ever recall.
Q: I guess among other things that was the time when the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill was being conceived.
Altmeyer: No, the Wagner-Murray-Dingell bill antedated Truman.
Q: I guess it was a revision I was thinking of.
Altmeyer: Yes, the President picking up and coming out with the "Fair Deal." Wilbur helped on that.